The Many Personalities of Florida’s Ocala National Forest

I often think of my multi-week treks as simply a series of shorter sections of camping bookended by a zero day in which I sleep indoors and take a load off for a full day and two nights.  The section of hiking which I just finished was unusual in that it was so short, consisting of only four days of hiking and three of camping. This was because of the potential of tornadoes that kept us an extra night in town in the increased safety of a hotel rather than a thin walled tent held down by tent stakes.  One day of hiking on my itinerary had to be canceled. Luckily, the tornadoes never came,  but the rain was quite heavy and I was glad to be inside.  We were certainly ready to hit the trail again

My friend Liz’s husband had been with us in the hotel during both zero days,  so we hopped in his car to jump ahead a bit in the trail, bypassing some less interesting pavement walking that we would have done during our second zero day.

At the dirt trailhead, we had the fun of meeting two two trail volunteers who were going in with their chainsaws to clear the path of any downed trees. I sure thank everyone, trail volunteers, trail angels and friends and family, who makes this trail experience possible.

Liz with Wayne, who drove 90 minutes to spend three nights in a not-inexpensive hotel to be with us during our wait and drive us wherever we wanted to go, including back to the trailhead this day:

Kelly with Matt, who left work for a “meeting” (shhhh) to be there with Kelly as she traversed a certain road crossing that had special significance for her:

And my own trail angel, Bill, who has hiked with me at the start of most treks and faithfully sent my food resupply packs since I began dehydrating my own trail food in 2017.

And I want to thank all the trail volunteers, who get out there and do so much work to make this experience possible.

They eagerly sign up to build bridges from what appears simple (but aren’t) to quite large structures.

Also included, are the amazing boardwalks spanning some of the permanently swampy areas, from short boardwalks to what I hear can be close to a mile, rumored to be ahead of me. Really? I’ll let you know.

A darling little palm hut was built right over the trail by trail angels who live next door. Inside are several lawn chairs for hikers to rest in with water at their fingertips. Certainly beyond the call of duty, and very clever and kind of them.

And trail angels like Steven Brindle who we met on the trail, who goes out of his way to pick up and deliver hikers where they need to go.

Other angels faithfully leave and restock gallon jugs of water for FT hikers in areas where there is none for them to collect.

Okay, back to the trail, right folks?  What can I say except it was a beautiful sunny day after the storm, just the right temperature.

Much larger expanses of deer moss fascinated me.

Areas with tall pines with swaths of saw palmettos below are my favorites.

And new things called “hills” began appearing. What?  In Florida?  But they kept it even more interesting.

Also interesting were all the mole hills that started appearing. What made them look unusual was that they were made of sand not dirt, but that makes sense since that’s what the moles are digging in. We continued to see these for several days, sometimes orange.

This day ended with another good night of camping in an established campground at Clearwater Lake with picnic tables, bearproof food lockers….

running water and toilets, which all makes a very civilized camping experience, except for the deranged natives.

We now moved on into the large Ocala National Forest, where the Florida Trail first began in 1966. In Ocala, the trail traverses prairies, pine flatwoods, and large pine scrub forests.  What I found fascinating was how very distinct the boundary was between these areas of vegetation, almost like a doorway,  when  your elevation changed by just a foot or two . You went from lush, green ferns and cabbage palms to almost desert like conditions with much smaller trees and shrubs.  It was hard to capture all of this on my phone, especially as the rain found us off and on during some of the day.  I’m now carrying a foldable umbrella, which makes hiking much more comfortable.  And soooo fashionable, right!

Who would’ve guessed cabbage, palms, and cacti could live in the same environment?


And on we went, often with each of us at our own pace soaking up the nature, and other times, joining together for lunch or walking and laughing together.

The second night of camping was not at any established site, but you could tell others had camped there.


It was by a lovely lake where we could hear many cranes calling to each other as they flew off.  Love it.

I’m tending to leave camp earlier than the others, closer to 7:00 to 7:30 in the morning, since I walk slower, and it helps even up the group.  We continued through more of beautiful Ocala State Forest with our destination as Juniper Springs campground. There are a lot of natural springs in this area, which have been turned into tourist friendly facilities.

Again, many different faces of the FT showed themselves during the day.

And once  again, we found at Juniper Springs a spacious site with a bearproof locker.  There are bears in this area and they quickly learn that hikers can be careless with their food.  I’m so grateful to have my bear canister when we are not at an organized site like this with lockers. It gives me peace of mind.

I chose to leave much earlier the next morning, by 6:30 AM when it’s not yet completely light. I had 19 miles I needed to do to get to the place I wanted be to even out the next few days’ mileage.  I would be a solo camper after today, when my friends would move on.  They were taking a shorter, alternate route to our destination because of a painful leg Liz has.  After starting by headlamp a couple of mornings on the Colorado trail, I was comfortable with this, since I had seen what good condition the trail was here. It turned out I only needed the headlamp for about 15 or 20 minutes.  It was actually dark when I took the photo below, but my iPhone 14 Pro Max is just too darned good at taking photos without a flash.

Going 19 miles, I needed to keep a very steady pace with fewer photos stop and gab session stops with other hikers. That’s a tough one to pull off for me.  The photo sessions were fewer, but I had the pleasure of talking to several day hikers, it being a Saturday.  But I still made very good time, with my only real stop being a 15 minute lunch break on the side of the trail.  And I did get some quick photos along the way.

I saw evidence of a school group’s recent experience I had read of online as trail maintainers, which included trimming palms from the trail and leaving them to add to the nice underfoot surface in the future.


A sinkhole, now a pond….

Still a section with many different personalities…

Ah….lunchtime!  The bear canister makes a nice seat or a table.  In this case, my seat was my thin folded Gossamer Gear foam pad that usually goes under my insulated inflatable Nemo air  mattress.

Lunch:  I believe that was once again veggies with  potatoes, flavored with just a 1 tablespoon  packet of Marconi balsamic vinegar (from Amazon).  It doesn’t have to be something complicated. The food is naturally tasty, and after hiking over 10 miles that morning, it naturally tasted wonderful!

The afternoon had me on an especially easy section, on two forest service roads that were the high water alternate route I took, instead of going through a presently flooded prairie area. With such a long day, and wanting to get to my final destination for this section, I took the easier way out.  Still counts. ✔️  This was the first time I listened to something on my phone on this trek:  Rip Esselstyn’s Plantstrong podcast.  Normally, I prefer silence.

Back on the regular trail after 5 miles, I really enjoyed walking under these towering pines.

I was picked up as planned by a trail angel, the kind woman who cleans the RV where I would be staying two nights in a nearby town.  She saved me nearly an hour and a half of extra walking, and I’m very grateful.

A quick stop at this small town’s modest grocery store (which I had investigated online in advance) netted me some goodies that would provide me with one lunch, two dinners and snacks while in town.  It’s important to do your homework in advance and then it can be fun to figure out how to make it work.

Hint:  tomato paste is the one canned tomato product with the lowest sodium level out there.  It can be thinned down with hot water to make a sauce, and you can add any seasonings you have if wanted. I found onion powder in the cupboard of the RV, but I didn’t really need it. For me, it’s good as is. I often use it that way as my pizza sauce. Jumbo serving tonight!  Low caloric density of your food = the more you get to eat to be satiated.  Eating is fun!

And this was to be my resting place for two nights.

I felt surprisingly good after hoofing it for 19 miles.  Today I feel as if it had been a (short) walk in the park.  I give the credit to the plant-based eating, and I’ve heard other athletes say the same thing.   Less inflammation, quicker recovery.  My buddies, Liz and Kelly, joined me for one night here, gamely climbing up into bunk beds.  They were off by noon today, to move on further and I’ll miss them greatly.  But will be fun to see who and what present themselves to me.  I already know of two women on the trail in my vicinity  (V and S, you know who you are)  and hope to meet them.  Such is life on the trail!  An ever expanding story….


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Comments 10

  • Phyllis : Jan 15th

    Thank you for your posts! Those meals are making me hungry!

    You are an inspiration to everyone! I’ll be praying for safe journey and great adventures!

    • Ruth Morley : Jan 16th

      I’m glad these meals tempt you. I relish every meal so eat now, both on and off the trail. Thank you, Phyllis, for praying for me. If you check out my FB group, Heart Healthy Hiking, you’ll see that I do give great thought to the decisions I make regarding trail safety and my own capabilities.

  • Maggie Houseknecht : Jan 15th

    Hello Ruth, Your latest post drew me in being I live in Crystal River FL near the Withlacoochee Forest. I have been hiking bits and pieces of the FT and hankering to do it all for the last year. Right now, I’m just day hiking but dreaming of more. Don’t even have a lot of the gear yet. Did you already pass through Chinsegut and Inverness etc on your way to Juniper springs? It would be so cool to meet on the trail. May head out today to hike. I see now you are going N so if you are headed to Gainesville and beyond I would be happy to meet on the trail and give you a ride if needed and/or some trail magic in the coming days. My friends and I want to do new sections anyway. A bit rainy these day. Enjoyed your post. Happy walking.

    • Ruth Morley : Jan 16th

      Hi Maggie! We have already passed through Juniper Springs and I’m sorry to say that those two names you mentioned of towns or areas don’t ring a bell for me. Most long distance hikers use an app called Far Out to follow their progress and learn where there’s water, camping, Etc. At some point the trail seems like just a red line on an app. This year I did bring some paper maps of the trail, which have helped me identify, but those still slipped past me.

      Thank you for offering to help me when I’m in the Gainesville area. If you join my Facebook group called Heart Healthy Hiking, then you could probably message me with your phone number. Thank you!

  • Bobo the Hobo : Jan 15th

    I’m pretty sure those are Pocket Gopher holes not Moles. Keep on Truckin.

    • Ruth Morley : Jan 16th

      Yes! Thank you for that information. I looked it up and that’s what the mounds of sand look like. Now if you were only with me and could identify every single bush and tree for me as well as the flowers.

  • Mary Jo Peairs : Jan 15th

    Ruth, On this very cold day in Cincinnati, reading about your hiking in Florida has kept me warm. I’m so glad that everything is going well. Best Wishes!

    • Ruth Morley : Jan 16th

      Boy, Mary Jo, I sure don’t miss the weather. You all are having at home! But it will get into the 30s tonight and a few other nights, and that makes for cold camping for me. But 10°? No thank you.

  • Jiffy Pop : Jan 16th

    Love your posts Ruth! Especially loved the picture of the two crazies at the fire, that cracked me up!
    We truly enjoyed your company and already planning on meeting you again next year!

    • Ruth Morley : Jan 16th

      You two look like Druids or witches dancing around the fire! I’m grateful the two of you are willing to come join me on that tough swamp section. I have ahead of me next year, although with all the rain we’re having right now, I’m getting plenty of opportunities to do a lot of wading already.


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